Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff
There isn't another Italian restaurant in Houston that's even in the same league with Da Marco. The place can be compared only to cosmopolitan outposts such as Babbo, the impossible-to-get-into Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Like Babbo's chef, Mario Batali, chef Marco Wiles spares no effort or expense to get the best ingredients -- often flown in from Italy. These sparkling culinary gems make all the difference. With a cream-injected fresh mozzarella called burrata beneath them, a pile of house-cured anchovies becomes a rare treasure. The sweet, hot pungency of Tuscan mustard-brined fruits known as mostarda bring a fascinating jolt of flavor to cold slices of lamb's tongue. Wiles combines Italian flavors, common and uncommon, like a master. Da Marco's wine list follows the same cutting-edge Italian theme. Start off with one of the proseccos, those delicious, slightly effervescent white wines from Veneto that are all the rage in Italy right now. Then segue into an off-the-beaten-track Piedmonte red. And please don't come looking for spaghetti and meatballs. This is Italian food for the cognoscenti.

It's hard to find the little white castle with the round tower and black witch's-hat roof unless you're looking for it. It's hidden under some trees on Memorial Drive near Beltway 8; nevertheless, discerning diners from all over the country are turning up here. That's because Indika has already earned a reputation as one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the United States. Outstanding entrées include duck tandoori in a toasted almond curry served with haricots verts and fluffy white basmati rice, and half a roasted eggplant filled with paneer and cashews. But first try the crab samosas with papaya-ginger chutney, and don't forget to save room for the best nan bread you have ever eaten, served with a spicy side dish of yellow lentils flavored with garlic, ginger and cumin.
Pappas Bar-B-Q
Barbecue is messy eatin'. The fewer people to see you go ballistic on ribs, the better. Even though Houston is a drive-thru town, most of us aren't aware the ubiquitous Pappas restaurants offer window service. Try the daily special choice of three meats and two sides for $8.99, and you'll get the sauce and bread alongside, but if you ask nicely, they'll also be happy to pass you pickles, onions, jalapeos and anything else from the condiment bar. You get all the benefits of visiting a barbecue joint without the unseemly public scarfing.
Buca Di Beppo
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Yes, it's loud and gimmicky, but they season the food well. The family-style servings, plus the mix of old favorites with moderately interesting dishes, guarantee an option to make almost any palate happy. Finicky kiddies who like their food simple can have the spaghetti bolognese; grown-ups who prefer a little more complexity can try the lemon chicken. And your kids couldn't be any more welcome here, no matter how boisterous they may be. God knows nobody will be able to hear them over the din anyway.

6510 Del Monte, 713-268-1115Nowhere in Houston will you encounter so many deutsch speakers. The daily specials are the thing to order, especially the long-simmered meats. German food usually doesn't sound appealing in the hot summer months, but the cold dishes here are exceptional as well. AnneMarie, the German-born proprietor and head chef of this little eatery next to Roland's Swiss Bakery, makes her own herring salad with a German-style sour cream, apple and onion dressing. Eat it on a slice of chewy sourdough rye bread some steamy afternoon, and then wash it down with a stein of Paulaner Salvator, the dark sweet beer from Munich. You'll think a snowy breeze has blown in from the Alps.

There are several sure signs of a great greasy spoon: Pickup trucks outnumber SUVs, "Texas toast" is a staple food, you feel the need to check your fork for stray remnants; and you leave feeling guilty yet satisfied. The Pig Stand easily meets all the criteria. Piggy No. 7 (yes, others do exist, just not in Houston) opened in 1921. Since then it has served up chicken-fried steak, liver and onions, and Pig Sandwich combos to all walks of life, be they lawyers, Sixth Ward bohemians or visiting executives escaping downtown for a dirty pleasure. Should the restaurant's name ever escape you while slurping a perfectly made chocolate malt, you can simply look around at the numerous pig pictures, figurines and collectibles. Homegrown kitsch is another solid indicator of a true greasy spoon.

Cafe Red Onion
"Colorful" is perhaps the best word to describe the offerings served at Café Red Onion, a blend of foods from Mexico and Central America. The culinary melting pot begins with the one-of-a-kind pineapple salsa and plantain chips and ends (at least it should) with the chocolate empanada. Owner and chef Raffael Galindo, a native of Honduras, not only melds many different Latin cuisines but he's also a master of presentation, using strips of red tortilla as a decorative, edible confetti and stacking everything so neatly on the plate that you almost want to leave it undisturbed. Some of the many signature dishes include the medallions of beef Colombia, which have been encrusted with coffee beans, giving them an unusual smoky, roasted note, and the cream of roasted poblano and chicken soup, thick with large chunks of chicken and kernels of corn. Each dish is so different in taste and presentation that it makes for an extraordinary culinary adventure.

Okay, so there are only two Malaysian restaurants in town. But at Malaysia Restaurant, the food is great and the prices are low. Malaysian food is the original fusion cuisine. The strategic peninsula has been ruled by countless colonizers. And every one of them brought along something to eat. There's curry from the Indians, noodles from the Chinese, roti from the Muslims, coconut milk from the Thais, fish sauce from the Indonesians, and shrimp paste hot sauce from the Malaysians. On the dinner menu, don't miss the stupendous fried crab -- a whole Dungeness crab cracked into pieces and stir-fried with a coating of the dried shrimp paste sambal. Get the chicken with orange redang curry on the lunch special menu. Redang tastes something like the spicy peanut stuff you slather on sate, only here it's used to smother noodles tossed with bean sprouts and green beans. Bite-size chunks of fried chicken, tofu and roasted eggplant are served over the top.
Hugo's
Chef Hugo Ortega, long the top toque at Backstreet Cafe, is now turning out cutting-edge Mexican food at this stunning new spot on Westheimer's restaurant row. You won't find any nachos, fajitas or chips and salsa here. What you will find is roasted rabbit in guajillo adobo with mashed sweet potatoes and jicama-radish salad, and quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms and huitlacoche. Chef Hugo is smart enough to call his cooking "original Mexican food" rather than fall into the authenticity trap. Instead of sticking to outdated regional Mexican recipes, he wisely invents his own combinations and presentations. Still, the restaurant lovingly showcases traditional Mexican ingredients and preparations, grinding its own chocolate, making its own tortillas and offering unusual specialities like cabrito, nopales and squash blossoms. This is the best Mexican food to be served in Houston in years, but it's also the most expensive.
Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant
Neon beer signs glow brightly in the cool darkness. The taco and tostada are made of old-fashioned ground beef with a minimum of seasonings and a maximum of chopped iceberg. The tamale and rice and beans are served swimming in chili gravy. Larry's seems indistinguishable from dozens of other vintage Tex-Mex joints -- until you dig into the cheese enchiladas. Then, while you're working away on the rolled tortillas, a miracle takes place on the plate. Viscous yellow cheese sauce oozes into dark brown chili gravy in yellow and brown swirls, creating a delicious masterpiece of half melted cheese and half tangy enchilada sauce. This goop that's left on your plate after you finish the enchiladas may be the crowning glory of old-time Tex-Mex. Pass the tortillas, please.

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